Mollie recently sent me this piece noting that Turkey had been added to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's list of religious liberty violators. She wondered what I thought of it.
This has been a subject of great debate here; the government was of course deeply offended and rejected it outright. I'm mostly puzzled by it. The suggestion that Turkey's on a par with Saudi Arabia is strange, to say the least. Either Saudi Arabia's not as bad as I thought or they're greatly exaggerating the problem in Turkey. There are quite a number of churches and synagogues in my neighborhood, and apart from a quiet, permanent police presence outside one synagogue (the one that was bombed by al Qaeda), I've seen no state intrusion or harassment. The police are near that synagogue for a good reason and they're welcomed as protectors, not oppressors.
I'm wondering why the focus is on Christians, when they're doing reasonably well--better than before; in fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate generally likes the AKP. It's the Alevis who are worried. They're very worried, and with good reason--but that's hardly ever covered in the Western press.
The problems the report describes are longstanding, dating to the founding of the Republic, in many cases, and indeed antedating the founding in others. It can be argued that only the AKP has ever made any move, however tentative, to solve them. So we (as in, friends with whom I discuss these things) reckon that the commission has reform fatigue and is trying to warn the government that they need to pick up the pace; or perhaps it is trying to make a political point about the other human rights problems here, such as the persecution of Kurds, the Ergenekon cases and the press freedom problem. We wonder if it is a way of saying, "We're watching you and we have an uneasy feeling about you." If the latter, it's a misconceived strategy, because it allows the government to point to the reasonably happy Christians and say, "What are you talking about?" (Which of course they've done.)
That said, the atmosphere among minorities here is definitely uneasy. I've tried to convey the strangeness of it in this piece in City Journal:
Earlier that day, the papers had reported that the government had agreed to return a few of the Armenian and Jewish graveyards that had been seized by proclamation in 1936. What, I asked a cynical Turkish friend, did this mean in practical terms? After all, I said, I would assume no one is aching to build a multistory shopping mall over these graves. “Oh, you might be surprised,” said the cynical friend. “Look on a map of Istanbul. Look where they are.” The Archpriest said that it was simply a matter of justice. He hoped that the government would return the rest of the Patriarchate’s properties. I asked: What would you do with these sites if ever they were returned? He didn’t know: they weren’t thinking that far ahead.
But the atmosphere is uneasy for many people, not just religious minorities. And it is important to remember that the atmosphere, in Turkey, has always been uneasy.